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Guide to Dock Building: Tips for Planning, Construction, & Maintenance

Updated: Jan 29

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Invest in a quality Radtke dock!

How to Build a Dock

Building a dock can be an exciting and rewarding project that can enhance your enjoyment of the water on your property! At Radtke we have decades of experience with marine projects such as dock building to help you achieve your dream waterfront property!

Whether you want to build a dock to launch a boat, or for fishing, there are several important steps to follow. While this is a DIY guide, your local dock builders at Radtke are ready to help you with any questions you may have along the way.

In this dock building guide, we'll cover everything you need to know. This includes planning, design, construction, and regular upkeep, to keep your dock in great shape for years to come! Use our table of contents below to help you navigate how to build a dock:

Table of Contents:

1. Determining Whether You Want a Fixed or a Floating Dock

When choosing either a fixed or a floating dock, you should remember to consider the level of water activity in your area, since that will impact your decision of choosing a more sturdy dock.

Floating docks vs fixed docks

  • Fixed docks: Also known as stationary docks, fixed docks are anchored firmly to the waterbed. Typically constructed from wood or concrete, these docks maintain a constant height above the water. Their robust nature allows for additional structures like gazebos to be added. Overall, fixed docks are more stable and can handle heavier loads. Examples of fixed docks include suspension/cantilever docks, crib docks, and piling docks.

  • Floating docks: Conversely, floating docks are installed to the shore, but do not anchor to the waterbed. They utilize steel tubes, barrels, or air chambers to remain buoyant, adapting to changing water levels. Floating docks provide a lot of benefits to new dock owners since they are versatile and easy to install and can be moved as needed.

There are multiple different docks to choose for your property. We detail more about this in our guide to different docks.

2. Considering the Environment Before Building a Dock

When deciding between a fixed or floating dock, you should consider the following environmental factors:

  • Water Depth: Floating docks are preferable in waters deeper than four feet, as they avoid the risk of bottom contact and potential damage. In shallower waters (less than four feet), fixed docks are more suitable.

  • Water Level Variability: For bodies of water with frequent level changes, floating docks are advantageous as they adapt to these fluctuations, ensuring easy access to boats.

  • Local Climate: In areas prone to extreme weather like hurricanes or heavy winds, floating docks are preferable. They move with the water and minimize the risk of damage to both the dock and moored boats. Fixed docks may suffer damage in such conditions due to submersion or impact from boats.

  • Boat Traffic: High-traffic waterways with considerable wave action are better suited for floating docks, which can absorb and move with the waves. Quieter, less trafficked waters are ideal for fixed docks.

  • Seabed Composition: The nature of the seabed influences dock choice. Sand, silt, and mud cannot adequately support fixed dock structures, making floating docks a better option. Clay and rocky beds can accommodate both dock types.

3. Planning & Designing Your Dock

From location, to overall size, to permits, there are several factors that go into planning a design of your dock:

  • Location: First, you'll want to build your dock at a spot on your property where it's easily accessible, safe, and deep enough for your boat. As you think about your dock's location, you'll want to consider the depth of the water, the distance from shore, and also the weather patterns in your area.

  • Permits: Before you begin building your dock, you’ll likely need to obtain the necessary permits from your local government. Check with your local planning and zoning department for more information. Some cities or counties may require a dock permit.

  • Size: The size of your dock will depend on your needs, preferences, and the size of your watercraft. Consider the length, width, and the height of your dock. Will you need any space for seating or storage? When in doubt about the proper sizing for your dock, be sure to talk to a trusted local dock expert.

  • Materials: Another one of the major factors you'll be considering for your dock is the materials. The materials you end up choosing will largely depend on your budget, water activity, and your personal preferences. Common materials customers choose include wood, composite decking, and aluminum.

4. Choosing Dock Materials

The choice of decking material impacts the dock's longevity and maintenance requirements:

  • Wood: While cost-effective and widely available, wood decking requires significant upkeep and is vulnerable to rot, splintering, and warping. It's crucial to ensure any treated wood is environmentally safe.

  • Composite: Made from a mixture of wood fibers, plastics, and minerals, composite decking offers varied colors and textures, requires less maintenance, and is more durable than wood. However, it can be susceptible to mold and mildew.

  • Metal: Aluminum and steel are durable options. Aluminum is maintenance-friendly but more costly, while steel offers strength but is heavier and more challenging to install. Both metals can become hot in direct sunlight.

  • PVC: Plastic decking, like polypropylene, polyethylene, or PVC, offers advantages like moisture resistance, lightweight, durability, and a cool surface in hot weather. Available in various colors and textures, it's a practical choice for many interested in building a dock.

After considering the type of dock and materials best suited for your location, you're prepared to engage a contractor to commence your dock building project. We detail choosing the right docking material more in this blog post.

5. Dock Building: A Step-by-Step Guide

Once you’ve planned and designed your dock, it’s time to begin construction. Here are the steps to follow for dock building:

The dock construction process

  • Prepare the Site: The first step of the process is for your dock building contractors to clear the site of any obstacles, including rocks, trees, and debris. Next, level the ground and mark the location of the dock. Make sure you have the appropriate tools and materials before you start building.

  • Install the Pilings: The pilings are the vertical supports that hold up the dock, which you install using a pile driver or by hand. It's important to make sure the pilings are straight and level. If they're not, it can lead to structural problems down the line. Read more here about how to install dock piling.

  • Install the Frame: The next step of the dock building process is to install the frame, which is the horizontal structure that sits on top of the pilings. Build the frame according to your design, using the appropriate materials. Make sure the frame is sturdy and level, and use lag bolts to attach it to the pilings.

  • Install the Decking: Now, you will install the decking, (the surface of the dock). Install the decking over the frame, using screws or nails to secure it in place. Also, make sure there's enough space between the boards for water to drain.

  • Install the Hardware: The hardware includes things like cleats, bumpers, and dock lights. Install them according to your design. Cleats and bumpers are essential for tying off your boat and protecting the dock from damage.

  • Test the Dock: Lastly, prior to using the dock, you or your dock building contractors should double check everything is safe and secure. Test for any signs of weakness or instability since it's important to make sure your dock can support the weight of your boat and any other equipment you plan to store on it.

6. Maintaining Your Dock

Now that your dock is constructed and tested, you can expect to use it for many years to come! As a dock owner, you will need to maintain it regularly to ensure that it lasts even longer.

Here are some tips we recommend you follow:

  • Inspect Periodically: Make sure you periodically inspect your dock for any signs of wear and tear. For wooden docks especially, you should frequently check for loose boards, rusted hardware, and rotting wood.

  • Make Repairs as Needed: If you notice any damage or wear and tear, make repairs to your dock as needed. Replace loose boards, tighten hardware, and sand and refinish the wood as necessary. It's important to catch these issues early on to prevent them from becoming bigger problems that may require an expensive dock repair service.

  • Clean Regularly: Next, be sure to clean your dock regularly to remove dirt, debris, and algae. Use a pressure washer or a mild detergent and a scrub brush. Be careful not to use harsh chemicals that can damage the dock's surface or harm marine life.

  • Protect it From the Elements: Consider adding a roof or a shade structure to protect your dock from the sun, and invest in high-quality materials that can withstand the elements. Use marine-grade hardware to prevent rust and corrosion. If a storm is rolling in, you may want to consider removing your temporary or seasonal dock and storing it until the inclement weather passes. A permanent dock will be more durable to withstand storm damage.

Proper maintenance will keep your dock lasting a lifetime!

Guide to Building a Dock: Conclusion

Building a dock can be a fun and rewarding project that can enhance your enjoyment of the water. By planning and designing your dock carefully, following the proper construction techniques, and maintaining and repairing it properly, you can ensure that your dock lasts for years to come!

If you are uncomfortable with the DIY dock building process, or if any questions come up about how to build a dock, please contact Radtke Contractors for assistance! Our dock builders have more than 60 years of experience with dock construction, boat ramp, and other residential or commercial projects.

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